Posted by: Jack Henry | March 7, 2023

Editor’s Corner: Silent Letters, Part 2


As promised last week, here is the second half of the alphabet (MZ) and examples of these letters being silent in certain words. For the full article you can see Every Letter Is Silent, Sometimes.


Like silent b‘s, silent n‘s tend to come at the ends of words and after m: autumn, column, damn, hymn, limn, solemn. While this might suggest to some that m is a little too accommodating, we would never anthropomorphize letters in such a way.


There is the flagrant excess of letters in enough, rough, and tough, where o is among several who have no place being there. Then there is the formerly mentioned ruffian colonel, in which neither o behaves properly and the second o doesn’t even bother to try. But in addition to those we then also have jeopardy, leopard, and people. We’ll let you draw your own conclusions about o.


P is silent before n in a selection of somewhat technical terms, such as pneumonia and pneumatic. And it’s silent before s in a different selection of words such as psalm, psyche, and psychology. It boldly says nothing in corps and coup and receipt. In some pronunciations of comptroller it somehow convinces m to join with it in dissembling; the two there impersonate n.


Q tends to function wholly aboveboard as an upstanding member of the alphabet. Most of us are fortunate to encounter its dereliction in lacquer only occasionally.


R exists in forecastle [KC Pronounced fk-sel.] only to mock landlubbers. It exists in February only to make us suffer.


S is a mostly-reliable letter. Its failings are limited largely to aisle, apropos, debris, isle, and island. We cannot, however, overlook its participation in the hot mess that is bourgeois.


T refuses to be audible in ballet, castle, listen, and whistle. In asthma it conspires with h to shun its usual duties.


U may appear reasonable, but evidence to the contrary is not difficult to find: build, catalogue, dialogue, colleague, guard, guess, laugh, league, tongue. Note that the second and third of these words have attempted eviction and are meeting with significant success: catalog and dialog are both fully accepted variant spellings.


V is at this point the only letter that refuses to be unheard in any established word of the language. And yet a dark cloud gathers on the horizon: in late May 2017 a much-followed and likely sleep-addled Twitter user tweeted out what was clearly a partially developed composition. The internet seized on the enigmatic final wordcovfefeand discussed it ad nauseam. Of the myriad pronunciations suggested for this non-word, several of the strongest contenders had a silent v.


W yields all power to the r that follows it in wrack, wraith, wrangle, wrap, wreath, wren, wrench, wrestle, wrinkle, wrist, writ, write, wrong, and wrought. As if that lot were not enough, w with no apparent logic whatsoever sits idly silent in answer, sword, two, and who as well.


We will admit to some small appreciation of x‘s discretion in its orthographic indiscretion. Its silence seems perhaps calculated in faux and faux pas.


We cannot blame y for its gratuitous presence in beyond. The letter may, in fact, believe itself to be essential in the word. It cannot be ignored, however, that the word would reasonably have its same pronunciation if it were spelled "beond," "beeond," or "be-ond."


There will surely be attempts to blame the French, and yet the following have been fully established members of the English language for centuries now: chez, laissez-faire, and rendezvous. We cannot look the other way, Z.

And there you have it! English is a bit crazy and also completely fascinating. I hope you enjoy your day!

Kara Church | Technical Editor, Advisory | Technical Publications

Pronouns: she/her | Call via Teams |

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